Clashing with the Past

Old movies and patriarchy
from the days of HUAC.
A look at Fritz Lang's 1952 film "Clash by Night"

by Daniel Borgström
October 16, 2016

Watching old movies is a journey back through time, paying visits to the movie version of the era we or our parents grew up in. A lot has changed since then, much of it for the better. Thank goodness I don't have to wear a white shirt and necktie just to go downtown nowadays, but back in the 1950s that was the norm, part of the required male attire. I remember my father, somewhat awkwardly putting on his dress-up clothes, struggling with his necktie. Being a former fisherman, Dad was skilled at tying all sorts of complicated knots, but that necktie was one he never quite mastered.

The differences between then and now are many, among the most significant are the gender roles of that time, presented particularly well in Fritz Lang's 1952 film "Clash by Night." That movie was made nearly two decades before the feminist revolution of the late 1960s.

"Clash by Night" was filmed on location in Monterey and opens with picturesque shots of the seacoast, the fishing fleet, and Cannery Row as it was back then, in its last years as a still thriving center of a fishing industry. The characters in this movie are fishing folk, and the story centers on a love triangle in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who has an affair with her husband's best friend. The lover, played by Robert Ryan, is an angry, cynical fellow, the kind of guy who'd seduce his best friend's wife. The husband, Paul Douglas, is just the opposite; he's a trustworthy, amiable guy, good-hearted, but rather childlike and simple-minded. Ryan says to Stanwyck, "Your man is the salt of the earth, but he's not the right seasoning for you."

While Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan are an ill-starred threesome who get things wrong, the movie also presents us with a counter-example of a couple who get things right, at least according to the ethos of the time. This couple, played by Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes, have their conflicts, but they work things out: she accepts him as the boss, the dominant partner. Andes portrays the proper masculine ideal for that era -- a guy who knows how to handle his woman and keep her in line.

Andes is Stanwyck's younger brother; together they own a house, presumably inherited from their parents. He's a crewman on a fishing vessel, a purse-seiner. Douglas is the owner and skipper. We see the two men (Douglas and Andes) on deck, repairing nets, using the traditional wooden net-needles.

Andes' girlfriend Monroe is a cannery-worker. She works in one of the sardine canneries along the waterfront; in one scene, Andes meets her after work and they stroll down Cannery Row, chatting.

One of the women came in to work that morning with a black eye, Monroe is saying. "That fellow she married . . . came down last night. Wanted her to go back upstate and live with him again. So when she wouldn't, he just beat her up awful."

"Well, he's her husband," Andes says, passing his judgment on the incident, expressing a rather extreme view of male entitlement.

A few scenes later we see them at the beach, and Andes playfully puts a towel around Monroe's neck as though to strangle her. He's just kidding, of course, just having fun together, harmless fun apparently, though he does now seem to have her in his grip and it looks like she's going to be the underdog in this relationship. (There's a movie poster using that scene; it's on the jacket of the DVD and also online.)

Weeks and months pass. The couple become engaged, and Monroe proudly shows Stanwyck the ring she has just received from Andes. "We had a fight," Monroe says, "and were never going to see each other again. At 10 o'clock [he] came to the house and was going to kick the door down. I never thought I'd like a guy who'd push me around." Stanwyck admires the ring, and tells Monroe that she's made the right decision. "[He] will make you happy. He knows who he is and what he is. Some of us don't. Always take the man who'll kick the door down. Advice from Mama."

Andes can be very sweet, Monroe says, but the movie doesn't show us much of his sweetness. In scene after scene, he comes across as rigid and righteous, a guy who could hardly be a joy to live happily ever after with, but he certainly does possess the manly qualities that were respected and even idealized in the '50s. Still, he does seem to be overblown; he's not just the boss, he's an abusive boss. The movie seems to be really overplaying the Andes role. Or is it? I went to the library, the film section. "Clash by Night" is mentioned in quite a few books, articles and reviews, but not much is said about the Monroe/Andes subplot; most of what little I could find seemed to view it approvingly. A 1969 biographer of Marilyn Monroe described the Keith Andes character as "a stern young man of high ideals." And in the view of film critic Lotte Eisner, Andes and Monroe "provide a tender comedy."

Those are fairly old reviews; maybe the film critics were oblivious to sexism, which for them was the prevailing cultural norm. Attitudes changed during the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Nevertheless, feminist revolution or no feminist revolution, Andes' character is pretty extreme, even by the standards of the early 50s, when this movie was made, and I must wonder what could've been the motivation for Director Fritz Lang to use such a script for that character.

There was also Alfred Hayes, who wrote the script. I don't know what discussions may have gone on between Lang and Hayes, but clearly, both were artists capable of putting negative traits to work in a positive way, bringing characters to life on the screen, and using the story to tell us something about the world we live in. The Andes character is totally believable.

Relationships, not romance, are the theme of "Clash by Night." Patriarchy is the kind of relationship this movie's about, but the approval or disapproval of those values is open to the interpretation of the viewer. The movie could be seen as intentionally promoting such values. Conversely, the exact opposite interpretation is also possible -- that the director and scriptwriter slyly intended that subplot as a biting satire. In considering the satire possibility (which is what I'm suggesting), let's remember that filmmakers had only limited freedom in what they could say or show. The First Amendment did not apply to filmmaking.

Film studios were then governed by the Hays Code, which required that the movie industry be "directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking." The Code's version of "correct thinking" included a bizarre list of dos and don'ts which today we can regard as ridiculous and even disgusting: Prohibitions on sex went to weird extremes; even married couples had to be shown sleeping separately, in twin beds. References to homosexuality were banned. Traditional religion could not be questioned. The laws of the land, including Jim Crow laws, were above censure.

Interracial romance or marriage was a big no-no. When MGM made Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth" into a movie, the studio considered Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong for the role of wife and mother. The story was about a marriage between two Asians; however, the husband's role was played by a Caucasian actor. Even that was prohibited by the Code; to avoid such objections, actress Wong was rejected in favor of a Caucasian.

For two decades, from 1934 till 1954, the Code was rigidly enforced by Joseph Breen, a right-wing Christian moralist who inserted himself in the movie-making process at every step along the way, from start to finish. When a studio considered a novel for a movie production, it had to first get Breen's okay. Then Breen would read the script, censoring out this or that. Finally, he'd screen the finished movie, imposing additional censorship, often butchering films, sometimes even rearranging scenes. (Ever wonder why some of those old movies are full of non sequiturs as if something were missing?) The details of this process were kept secret from the public till 1986 when files of censorship comments on about five thousand movies were finally released. (For a two hundred-page sampling of Breen's comments, see "The Censorship Papers" by Gerald Gardner.)

Joseph Breen's primary obsession had mostly to do with sex, suppressing it. He was also a notorious anti-Semite and, during the rise of Hitler, managed to prevent the production of "It Can't Happen Here," "The Mad Dog of Europe," and several other anti-Nazi films. A variety of right-wing pressure groups as well as people in government (such as J. Edgar Hoover) loved and approved what Mr. Breen was doing. Despite such blatantly pro-fascist censoring, his tenure in office survived World War II. The end of the war found him still running the show as Hollywood's censor-in-chief. The Cold War was beginning; that era also became the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with the jailing of the "Hollywood Ten," and the blacklisting of actors, screenwriters and directors -- a very repressive and scary time, especially for movie people.

And that's when "Clash by Night" was made. The movie was based on an earlier play by Clifford Odets, a former Communist. It was adapted for the cinema by screenwriter Alfred Hayes, also a former supporter of the Communist Party (he's the poet who wrote the lyrics of "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.") Director Fritz Lang was an Austrian whose work had already achieved fame in the German cinema. Though apparently not especially political, Lang detested Hitler and refused to work under Joseph Goebbels. So he came to America, a refugee, where he found himself under the dominion of another Joseph -- Joseph Breen, who had to be somehow accommodated.

It would seem that there was not much that Lang and Hayes or anyone else could do. Nevertheless, even under that supposedly airtight system, Hollywood filmmakers often found ways to push the envelope, even outwit the censors. In the classic noir film "Maltese Falcon," Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade) snarls, "Keep that gunsel out of my way!" Mr. Breen assumed "gunsel" meant "gunman," and let it pass. The word is used three times in the script, meaning a young guy who's the homosexual companion of an older man.

Hayes and Lang must've known the tastes of Joseph Breen, that he would presumably find the Monroe/Andes subplot much to his liking, considering it an example of a couple that would serve as the proper role models for young people. So what better way to ridicule Breen than to present those patriarchal values as part of an abusive relationship! Satire disguised as a morality play.

Consider the following scene, one which plays almost like a newsreel from the televised HUAC hearings, where many filmmakers cowered before their inquisitors, trying desperately to present themselves as patriotic citizens.

"Listen to me Blondie!" Andes bursts out in a scene near the end of the movie. He rages on, berating her. This is not a gentle, kind and considerate lover, asking for a commitment. He's a patriarchal, authoritarian figure, demanding an oath of loyalty. "Now which way is it gonna be?" he barks. Monroe looks at him aghast, then sobbing, throws herself into his arms. We see the expression on her face -- sad, terrified, humiliated, perhaps feeling she has no place else to go in a world where every guy who seems worth having buys into those same abusive ideals.

The tragedy in "Clash by Night" is that we see a feisty woman, the Monroe character, capable of defending herself in a scrappy manner, but who ends up dominated, beaten down and accepting of her diminished role. It's an incisive look at a culture where people wind up in dead-end relationships where they're lonely, unhappy and abused. It's also an allegory of our society's mistreatment and subjection of film artists.

I was only nine when this movie was made, and I don't remember seeing it back then. But I do remember the HUAC hearings, the loyalty oath requirements, and the experience of growing up in an atmosphere where you simply did NOT criticize the government. Fear alone was not what really kept people in line. War, peace, depression, prosperity and the automobile, plus the A-bomb, all contributed to an incredible mystique amounting to a moral force that held people in awe, so much so that the adults around me perceived the powers that be as our benevolent protector, as the ultimate patriarch. People wanted to be in good with it, the way Monroe wanted to be in good with her abusive boyfriend.

updated October 16, 2016
danielfortyone ( )

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Clash by Night

Director: Fritz Lang
Producers: Jerry Wald, Norman Krasna, Harriet Parsons
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes
Based on the play "Clash by Night" by Clifford Odets


Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle D'Amato
Paul Douglas as Jerry D'Amato
Robert Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer
Marilyn Monroe as Peggy
J. Carrol Naish as Uncle Vince
Silvio Minciotti as Papa D'Amato
Keith Andes as Joe Doyle

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